Published twice a year (Spring and Fall issues), Spot magazine features award-winning commentary on photography and photo-based art exhibitions in Texas, the United States, and abroad.
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Readers of Spot include art collectors, curators, gallery owners, artists, photographers, art-enthusiasts, students, and professionals. Spot has been redesigned in 2011 in celebration of HCP's 30th Anniversary. Published unremittingly since 1982, Spot's archive is one of the few sources preserving the history of the early regional photography scene.
June 24, 2014
Singular Pursuit: Navigating A Digitized Art World
Bryan Schutmaat with Peter Brown
Bryan Schutmaat’s photographic work on the American West has exploded on the photographic scene this past year. Bryan is from the Clear Lake area south of Houston and has had a connection with HCP for some time. His work has been widely exhibited and published here and abroad and has won a variety of awards: this year’s Aperture Portfolio Prize; the Daylight Photo Award; Santa Fe Center's Gallerist Choice Award; and the 2011 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship from HCP. In 2013, Dazed Magazine named him one of Paris Photo's "breakout stars.” His first monograph, Grays the Mountain Sends, was published in December by The Silas Finch Foundation and The Washington Post named it one of the top five photo books of 2013. It was also shortlisted for the Aperture Paris Photo First Book Award, and was selected by a variety of publications as a year-end "Best Book.”
Peter: Bryan, we’ve known each other now for five years and over that time a lot has changed for you. When we first met, you hadn’t had a lot of formal photographic training, yet you had put together an impressive record of exhibitions not only in this country but abroad. And your work to me, seemed remarkably of a piece. Now, five years later you have become one of the most celebrated photographers of your generation.
In this interview I’d like to do two things – first, in the magazine here, explore the way that you’ve moved from relative obscurity to someone well known in our photographic world. And second in a new move for SPOT, to go to our website where I’d like to talk about your new book, Grays The Mountain Sends. It’s being assembled as we speak and remarkably, its first edition is already sold out. A link to all the images in the book is available here, if readers want to follow: www.bryanschutmaat.com/book.
So congratulations on your achievements and I’m happy that HCP has been able to have a hand in your success. Among other things, you were our Carol Crow Fellowship recipient in 2011.
So how did all this happen? I think it would be helpful to younger photographers for you to trace your journey over the past few years. How have you gotten your work out into the world? You seem to have created your own path and that path I think also describes an aspect of a digitized art world that continues to evolve.
Bryan: First, I want to say what a joy it is to be interviewed by you, Peter. You’re one of my favorite photographers, so this is an honor for me, and I’m thankful for it.
We first met because I sent you an email out of the blue asking if you’d give me advice on how to be a photographer – more specifically, an art photographer. I wanted to become one, but I didn’t understand how it worked, how to earn a living, how to stay sane, and so on. You invited me to your home, looked at my work, and offered me more kindness than anyone deserves, yet I left without answers to the questions I had, not because you withheld anything, but because there are no answers, at least no straight ones. I guess it works differently for anyone brave or stubborn enough to choose this path in life. You just told me that I’d be all right and that I should basically take the leap of faith – which I did. But it wasn't until 2010, when I applied to grad school, that I really began to claim myself a photographer without a self-conscious lump in my throat. I had been taking photos regularly for a number of years before then, but it was more of an intense hobby than any kind of career, and my mind and ambitions were all over the place. I had a degree in liberal arts, I was playing music, I was really interested in cinema (mostly watching and critiquing it), I was working in education. Photography, it turned out, was the best way to consolidate my creative energies into a singular pursuit, so I began to give it more time, commitment, and passion. I decided to make photography my life. Not surprisingly, I think making that decision, taking that plunge, accounts for the good things happening with me these days. It's hard to make waves if you're just dipping your toes in the water. You gotta go all in.
With that outlook, I started grad school at University of Hartford in the fall of 2010 and soon began work on what would become Grays the Mountain Sends. In early 2011, I won HCP's Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship, which really motivated me because I had to show the work a few months later as a part of the fellowship deal. Looking back, it was a hasty step forward that I probably wasn't ready for, but it got me working really hard on the project due to the deadline and the audience who would see it. After the HCP show, I continued studying and shooting off and on for Grays the Mountain Sends through the remainder of grad school. I received my degree in late 2012 with a finished project in the can, and I immediately moved to New York, where I did what I could to get it in front of people’s eyes. However, it was mainly the internet, not my physical proximity to the art world, that opened most doors. This had been my strategy all along – just putting work online, hoping that it would be seen and opportunities would arise. A bunch of blogs and online publications started showing Grays, which led to features in print magazines, and the floodgates kind of opened from there. I think recognition has a snowball effect, so it's hard to say how everything has happened. During this time, I also started submitting my work to contests – Center's Choice Awards, Aperture Portfolio Prize, Daylight Photo Awards, etc. To my surprise, I won many of them, and the exposure has lead to more press, print sales, exhibition offers, editorial assignments, and so on. They also emboldened me to send out more unsolicited emails, which, despite having emailed you, hasn't really been my thing in years past. But I do it more often now, because – why not? That's how I convinced Kevin at the Silas Finch Foundation to publish my book.
Peter: Tell me a little more specifically about the ways that you put your work online. You created your own system in a way, pretty much independent of teachers, galleries, curators, critics and the like -- and though what you did then may be superseded by newer technology now, if you could be clear about how you achieved this, I think it would be helpful. Your photographs did most of the heavy lifting of course, but I also think the way you’ve navigated the new digitized art world has been savvy and inventive.
Bryan: I should first say that I think computer screens and iPads are far from the best way to experience photography, as I’m sure you agree. Well-crafted prints and books are much better. But building exposure online can serve as a stepping stone that guides people to those optimal formats, so my hope is that people who like my pictures online will eventually see them on exhibition or buy books. Nevertheless, the internet can’t be underestimated in terms of volume. For instance, on a good day, the number of people who visit my site might be greater than the entire print run of my book. I don't really know if that's a good or bad thing, but it's a testament to the internet's power, so with that in mind, I think it’s a good idea to have a presence on the net and engage with what's happening there.
I mean, the internet is amazing in general. It’s right up there with fire or agriculture when it comes to human developments that have had the greatest impact on history. The ways that ideas and data are exchanged these days have become increasingly more democratic, more forward-thinking, and much better than yesterday’s outdated modes of hierarchical distribution. I say that with caution, but I believe it’s true in most cultural arenas.
Today, if you have something to say or show to the world, you just put it on the internet and see what happens. I did this from the very start. Like I said, I wasn’t so serious about photography when I began, but once I had a handful of photos I liked, I made a website to share them. I really don’t recommend doing this right away. Young photographers should probably spend a number of years learning how to photograph before promoting themselves. I didn’t know any better though. I spread the link to my site (full of very bad photos) via emails, instant messages, social media, and so on. This led to people blogging my photos and featuring them on small, online publications. At some point, I began to use the photo sharing service, Flickr, which increased the exposure of my pictures pretty significantly. Flickr definitely had its drawbacks, but it was a good place to learn and I came to understand the value of online community. After a while, a lot more bloggers began to post my work, and people continued to learn about who I was and what I was doing.
It has been years since I've used Flickr, however, I’ve been active on a blogging site called tumblr since 2010. On tumblr, I mainly make announcements about my work and let people know what I'm up to, but I also I use it to share the work of others, whether that's photography, film trailers, novel excerpts or whatever. It’s as if I have my own mini gallery space online to show people what I like - all with links to the respective creators. Tons of other people are doing this on tumblr as well, and it's amazing how all of the small parts of this community collectively promote work and give voice to artists who might otherwise have none. Not necessarily with tumblr, but with this kind of model, I believe that to large extent the old, elitist methods of distribution can be circumvented, and artists can gain exposure and make names for themselves without pleading with magazine editors and gallerists to make their work known. The simple but beautiful idea inherent in this manner of online dissemination is the users’ freedom to see or share whatever they want. It’s not like an institution where what goes up is dictated by people whose job it is to make qualitative decisions about what content is worthy of being seen. We’re now dealing with a many-to-many model instead of a one-to-many model. As it might be suspected, the vast majority of content on tumblr is total garbage, but the good work tends to rise to the surface while everything else fades into the digital abyss.
But this isn’t always enough. Despite my love for the internet and its community, I still think there are much-needed roles for curators, publishers, and gallerists, and I want to thrive in their world as well (but that’s not to say that they're entirely apart from the net). I guess like all of the art-oriented photographers before me, I aspire to museum walls and esteemed collections, but if my place to excel is online, that’s cool with me too. It's not a trivial platform at all, especially for those who are young and have no advocates.
This ends the portion of the interview featured in the Spring 2014 Issue of Spot.
Peter: And as we have just said in the magazine: thrive you have in this non-digital world as well. The culmination certainly is the publication of Grays the Mountain Sends. It’s an intimate look into the lives of blue-collar workers in the mountain west, mostly miners and almost all men. And it has been named one of the top five photography books published this year - by The Washington Post, no less… To me it’s a sonorous, sad and beautiful mix of portraits, interiors, cultural landscapes and still life. It’s moving and musical and is sumptuously published and designed.
A few questions: first, I know you’ve photographed throughout the American West for many years. How did you choose these forty-two images, this region and this particular theme from the hundreds of no doubt equally deserving pictures and the half dozen other narrative ways you might have gone? Why miners and mining towns particularly over other people and genres? I’m sure you could write a book about these kinds of choices, but what were the broad ideas?
Bryan: Before Grays, I had long been interested in the America West, and I shot some small projects there from about 2007 to 2010. That work was mainly about the landscape and contained no portraits. But when I was out shooting back then, I'd pull into a these little communities, and I’d see these guys who lived there, sometimes my age. I was inquisitive about what life was like for them and what it meant to exist in their small towns. Initially, I was drawn west because of the region's vastness and beauty, its mythic presence in American history, and the sense of freedom I felt when I was driving around out in the mountains and plains. After I spent a decent amount of time in the West, I got over those seductive qualities, and I began to look more closely at what was around me and the people who called it home. I gravitated toward portraiture as a way to interact with the people and to gain familiarity with their world. I think this was the genesis of Grays; however, it took a long time to materialize, since I was anxious about talking to strangers and fully engaging them.
My interest in mining towns came about several years ago after I visited Butte, Montana and fell in love with the place. It's pretty faded, but beautiful. Butte's rugged allure led the film director Wim Wenders there, and he once called it his favorite place in America. I learned that Wenders was really into Dashiell Hammet's novel, Red Harvest, which is set in a fictional city modeled after Butte in the 1920s. I read the book, and of course it's fiction, but its pages are filled with so much excitement that if you look at Butte today you'd never think it could have been remotely the same place that Hammet was writing about. This struck a chord with me. I mean, Butte was once a lively city with busy streets and a booming economy based around copper, but it has since fallen from its glory years and is now pretty boring in relation to its perceived past. There’s a disparity between what was and what is, which seems to be the case with many mining towns dotting the West. This is relayed visually; history, hope, effort, and human experience are all recorded on the surfaces of these towns, whether it’s the withered buildings men have constructed or the defunct mining pits they’ve dug. It's all there. So I respond pretty emotionally and imaginatively to most mining towns I visit.
Then in late 2010, I found myself living in Bozeman, Montana, and I started reading literature from the region. One of the most resonant pieces I came across during that time was Richard Hugo's "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," a poem told from the perspective of a man in a burnt out mining town. It reads as though the author is angry at the present for not being what the past had been. This poem really blew me away and further invigorated my interest in mining towns and their expressive possibilities. Hugo used descriptions of the outside world to relay deep emotion and interior life. I aimed to do that photographically, and I chose mining towns as my material to work with.
More broadly, mining worked well for me because of its historic significance and what it means symbolically to the broader narrative of the project. This plays out in a myriad of ways, but there's something to be said about the fact that the first white men to ever set foot in the American West were out there in search of precious metal. This has been echoed century after century, through following eras and into Manifest Destiny, as the patriarchs of the West slowly transformed wilderness so they could literally extract riches from the land by brute force. That says a lot and definitely ripples into the present-day West.
I should definitely note, however, that only a handful of the portraits in Grays are actually of miners, and a lot of the shots weren't taken in mining towns. If, for instance, I drove through a lumber town or an agricultural area on my way from one mining region to another, I wouldn't put my camera away. When I saw something interesting, I would typically always stop and see what the world might give me, taking advantage of whatever subject matter I could find if it didn't stray too far from the overall theme of the blue collar West. It wasn't always the content, but the mood and style of the scenes that drew me in. It was more important to me to develop a certain atmosphere and emotional tenor than to accurately describe an industry. So when it comes down to it, I suppose the photos aren't really about mining; mining is a motif – a device mainly used for cohesion, sense of setting, and figurative capabilities. It was a vehicle to demonstrate something deeper about what people go through, how they live and endure.
Regarding the edit, the 42 pictures in the book are the ones that worked best together. I know how vague that sounds, but there were a ton of factors at hand, so to sum up my decisions is pretty hard. Basically, I was looking at the vestiges of Manifest Destiny and what has become of the American West's mythic promise – a promise endowed by the landscape's attributes and once seemingly endless resources. I responded to this by picking photos that show the melancholy relationship between the people and places I encountered, which relied on suggestion and metaphor. I used the large format camera's descriptive capabilities to emphasize shared characteristics on the surfaces of things, hoping that their aesthetic similarities would translate into emotional continuity. When editing, I got obsessive as I tried to create a sequence in which every photo had its place and corresponded to the those that came before and after in a meaningful way. I made sequence choices based on the way content in the pictures might mimic or echo one another. I thought a lot about the visual associations from one image to the next – tone, palette, the way light falls, repetition of shape, other formal qualities. I wanted the photos to take viewers by the hand and guide them – their eyes, hearts, thoughts – from one place to the next as if the book were a piece of music.
Peter: As a viewer you do feel as though you are being led from image to image and section to section. I think the size, the design and even the binding of the book may help with this. We are being shown secrets. And I’m amazed at the access that you’ve achieved with these somewhat stricken guys – old and young. They don’t seem vanquished but most have been through trying times – or are headed in challenging directions. I know from my own experience that men like these can be private, defensive and sometimes difficult to approach. How did you make your way from a first recognition that there might be something there, to taking the picture?
Bryan: I don't know. It differed every time. But I can spot people who would make good portraits pretty instantaneously, and I moved forward with conversation and requests for portraits based on that intuition. I spent a lot of time with some people and talked to them for a while before making portraits, yet with others, I simply asked to take pictures upon first meeting. The latter was more common, I'd say, because often I saw photo opportunities in settings where making small talk wasn't possible without awkwardness, so a straightforward introduction was necessary.
There were some people I spent days with, some hours, some minutes. Getting those guys to open up in front of my camera wasn't easy, but there's no secret to the process. I just tried to be a kind person, and I did what I could to identify with them and make them comfortable in my presence.
It was also helpful to let the sitters know how important photography is to me. When they recognized all the effort I put into the work, they became willing to give me more because they knew that I was serious about what I was doing and really cared about getting the shot. I always let them know how grateful I was for their time, because it really did mean a lot to me. Some of the exchanges were really profound, and there were some guys I actually hugged afterward. This worked both ways in some instances. Not typically, but sometimes, they were very happy to have met me, too.
On a number of occasions, the people I encountered just wanted someone to listen to them, so I listened. It's amazing what people will share – their stories, interests and passions, happy memories and sad ones too. Topics of conversation ran the gamut – guns, trucks, wildlife, family life, baseball, broken hearts, politics, western films, the weather, and on and on. But again, every exchange was different, and there were some people I hardly talked to at all. I just took the picture, thanked them, and moved on.
Often, the interactions I had with people leading up to a portrait session weren't congruous with the mood in the photos that I took of them. When people communicate, especially with strangers, they tend to smile and engage more jovially. However, during the long process of large format portraiture, many sitters settled into more pensive states, and their countenance and body language transformed into something more sorrowful. A lot of those photos made their way into the edit.
This, as well as your description of my subjects in your question, brings up an interesting issue about truth in photography – and that is that there is none. I really think that pretense is inherent in nearly all photography and that what's recorded on film isn't real life whatsoever. Yes, these men were strangers to me whom I randomly met and photographed in environments that weren't manipulated by any large measure. But who they are in the pictures – what their history might be, what they're going through, what they evoke – is not necessarily indicative of who they are in real life. Sometimes it is, and some of the guys were definitely going through hard times, on the verge of despair – but that was seldom. The photographic process doesn't capture reality, it removes things from reality. Then the photos get grouped with others for poetic purposes and rearranged considerably. They end up meaning something new, so despite my loyalty the documentary aesthetic and tradition, the photos that make their way to the pages of the book are fiction.
For example, I have a friend named Stanley who can read photos better than anyone I know. When I first showed him my maquette of Grays, he looked at one of the portraits and declared that the man in it was heartbroken. No, I told him, if I remembered right, he was happily married. He looked closer. It didn't matter, Stanely declared, he is heartbroken in the picture. It's kind of like that Winogrand quote when he was asked if he photographed beautiful women: “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”
In any case, I'll gladly admit that all these fragmented pieces of time and subjective depictions of the world that I've collected over the course of months are my projections, not documents. The photos aren't reflective of reality, they're a point of view. If the guys in my pictures are stricken and if the towns appear downcast and sad, it doesn't mean it's because they really are that way; it's because I believe the that life is sad and difficult to get through and I felt the need to make work which acknowledged that. Again, I'm reminded of a good quote, this time by Goethe: "A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart."
Peter: In your acknowledgments you thank your dad, a successful contractor - and in fact dedicate the book to him. You thank him for a number of things but in a line I love, you thank him specifically for “all the nails you drove while you I was growing up.” Do you know this blue-collar world personally? And if so, was your upbringing helpful to this project? Carpentry is not mining -- and Clear Lake, Texas is not Tonopah, Nevada but I’d bet that there might be overlaps.
Bryan: I don't know the construction world first hand, only through my dad and the way he talked about it when he came home. Though, sometimes he would take my siblings and me out to the job sites to show us work in progress. Honestly, I didn't want much to do with it when I was young. I wanted to skateboard and play guitar, and I wasn't particularly fond of helping my dad with repairs around the house either. One year, he bought me a bunch of tools for Christmas, and the ones I didn't lose I let rust away. My dad and I weren't always happy with each other as I came of age. He drank a lot, got mad pretty frequently, but I still think he's a great father. Everyday I'm thankful for his role in my life. And he played a large yet indirect role in Grays too. I thought about him often as I was out shooting. I think, in some abstruse way, I was trying to make portraits of him through the guys I met. Sometimes someone's flannel shirt might remind me of the earliest memories of my dad, sometimes the way they smelled, the dirt beneath their nails, the way they inhaled cigarettes. Whether moving dirt in Montana, or raising beams in Texas, often the men participating in physical labor are doing it to provide for people they love. That's why I dedicated the book to my dad.
Also, my father has the gift of gab. He can basically talk to anyone about anything, and he makes friends wherever he goes. Had he not raised me, I don't know if I'd have the social skills necessary to make a project like this, especially when it comes to getting on with working class guys. My dad still says stuff like "swingin' dicks" and "shit-canned." That lingo can come in handy.
Peter: There are a couple of photographs I’d like to get the back stories on - the narratives that led to their making: first, the old grey haired guy in the textured sweatshirt sitting in a strange glowing light, and second, the long haired man in the pickup truck staring directly into the camera.
One day I was out shooting in Goldfield, Nevada, an old mining town, home to 20,000 people at its peak, once the largest town in the state. Now, the population is about one hundredth of that size – basically a ghost town. I was taking photos of beat-up cars and things in an abandoned area when a man approached me. I was under the dark cloth when he walked up so I was startled. (Goldfield is a bit of a spooky, ominous town to begin with.) I can’t remember what he first said, but it wasn’t in a pleasant tone. I was only intimidated shortly, because he soon started up a friendly conversation.
His name was Dave and he was actually a really nice guy. I ended up hanging out with him for the next couple days. We went to the only bar in town and had some beers, then drove around as he showed me the sights and relayed everything he knew about Goldfield’s history – how much gold the mine used to yield, the fire that devastated the town in 1923, the ghosts that are there now, etc. Dave insists that the ghost of a miner lives in his house and stirs in the night, which might be one of the reasons why he has been trying to fix up his place to sell. He wants move to the Oregon coast. I can’t imagine there’s a market for his home when there are dozens of empty ones surrounding it, but that’s his dream.
He occupies his spare time in a variety of ways, one of which is searching nearby lots and defunct sites for interesting relics – old tools, arrowheads, gold nuggets, medicine bottles that the Chinese brought over, and so on. He also likes to watch westerns for hours on end, so on the second day we spent together, I photographed him in the glow of an episode of Gunsmoke.
Dave was a really generous guy. He fed me dinner and sent me off with a Roy Rogers DVD that he insisted I take. Not long after I returned home from the trip, a box arrived from Dave that contained a shirt I had accidently left at his house, as well as a rock he painted. I tried to calling him to say thanks, but the number he gave me didn’t work. I sent him a note and the photos I took of him, but I never heard back. Maybe they didn’t reach him because he already left for the coast. That’s my hope.
This man’s name is Chuck and I came across him on the outskirts of Butte, Montana. He was checking his mail along a row of mailboxes where a dirt road met a two-lane highway. I was driving by on the highway and he caught my eye, but I didn’t initially stop. After half a mile or so I started kicking myself for not stopping, and then I decided I had to photograph him, so I turned around and sped back to the mailboxes.
By then he was gone, but I saw a trail of dust and his truck headed down the dirt road in the distance. I followed after him, toward the middle of nowhere. I don’t know what I was thinking at first, but after a few minutes of chasing him, I realized how creepy my behavior might be to an outside observer. I kept on despite my better sense, and then he turned down a private drive, another dirt road going over a hill. I figured if I had gone that far I should see it through.
He finally pulled up to his house and got out of his truck. I stopped my car and got out, and he looked at me like I was a crazy person. I awkwardly explained myself. He replied graciously and soon enough I was taking his portrait. Chuck might have been the kindest guy I’ve ever met. The light was horrible that day, so I returned a few days later and took some better photos.
Several months after that, I visited Chuck again to give him a print, and I ended up drinking with him and listening to all his stories. He told me about his days in Butte, where he worked as a miner and a bulldozer operator. He told me about how the town had changed and how the cops had turned into assholes. He told me about hilarious memories of boozing and getting into trouble. And he told me about tragic stuff too, about his son who died in a construction accident.
Peter: Both these men are in deep repose - one looking away, the other into the camera. What are your thoughts on directional choices of this sort? Do you instruct your subjects in ways to elicit mood or expression?
Most of my portraits are made under the hypnosis of intuition. I try different things, but I never know what I’m trying to do, really. I suppose I search for something that strikes a chord, a poignant mood or something evocative, but it’s so ill-defined. I direct my sitters to an extent. I might tell them how to hold their hands or where to look. Still, in the moment, I don’t really know what I’m doing. Photography is like some kind of improvisational dance with the world. Afterward, you get back to the contact sheets and try to decipher what the hell you were doing. Editing is the only thing that saves us, don’t you think?
Peter: I do. The discard pile is always daunting and often embarrassing – but many times it becomes instructive. I remember hearing a story about John Szarkowski, who after sharing a couple of bottles of wine with Cartier-Bresson finally got Bresson to agree to show some proof sheets. Bresson went off into another room and rummaged around for quite a while and finally came back holding a single sheet in the air. He gave it to Szarkowski dejectedly and said, “Here you have it, one photograph. The other thirty-five pictures are my sins…” So ‘save’ may be the right word..
There is an enormous amount of projection that we do when looking at images as we’ve noted, but there is a consistency in what you’ve achieved with these men that builds on itself. This is more of a comment than a question, but the lack of tension and visual confrontation with the viewer makes it easy for us to enter these images and to stay with them, think about them. Was this something you considered – or is it a by-product of your method?
Maybe early on it was a by-product of the method, then I recognized something happening and went with it. As I’ve mentioned, in a lot of cases my sitters naturally settled into more contemplative, gloomy kinds of states, as if no one was with them and a sense of loneliness pervaded. I responded more strongly to those photos and the way they related to the broader subject matter, so perhaps I began to channel those vibes as I shot later on. Sometimes it’s good to let your photos guide you to your next step.
You mention visual confrontation, which is interesting to me. The concept of the “fourth wall” isn’t very prominent in photography since photography is supposed to be real and the photographer’s role is always considered when you look at a photo. But if there were a more discernable fourth wall in photography, I probably wouldn’t break it often. Even when my sitters are looking at the camera, I usually still want them to be in their own worlds, and I want to give viewers the opportunity to step inside those worlds to explore. In any case, I find those quiet, intimate moments are the most conducive to reflection and rumination among viewers.
Peter: There are a few shots in the book in which there is tension, as though that theatrical fourth wall is about to be violated – a green shirted kid in a trashed out yard looks as though he’s about to take a swing at you, and a man in a desert setting appears threatening. But a sense of calm is generally the note. Have you looked at a lot of portraiture? Are there painters who have influenced your work? I’m thinking of Dutch masters - 17th century stuff…
I’ve got Dutch blood in me and I love the work Rembrandt and Vermeer and others from that period. Their tenderness, their use of light, and the auras they created have always moved me and have no doubt shaped my way of seeing. There are later portrait painters who have influenced me equally, particularly realists such as Jules Breton and Thomas Eakins, whose work I’ll always adore. Most of these painters display sensitivity, an air of sorrow, and an affection for people and the world, which I’ve probably tried to echo in some way. And of course, aesthetically, there is some emulation as well (though I can’t say it was purposeful at the time of shooting).
When it comes to portraiture, August Sander is my idol though. Not just in photography, but in any medium, I think he’s one of the greatest portraitists to have lived, and I’ve looked at his work piously.
Peter: Another hero of yours certainly is the poet Richard Hugo. Your work to me seems grounded in a variety of things apart from photography. Painting as we’ve mentioned, but also poetry, fiction – perhaps film – and certainly American cultural history.
The book to me is a kind of photographic prose poem that deals well with all of this. But there are musical notes as well. It’s chapter, verse or stanza in shuffled inventive ways. I like the physical page-breaks that you’ve included, and the slow, sad narrative that builds.
The red headed waitress at the end is even a coda of sorts. More about her in a moment…
But are there particular literary and visual/narrative artists apart from Hugo who have influenced you? I think of the short story writer Raymond Carver particularly. His characters – and indeed Carver himself might have wandered into your book.
Raymond Carver has been a tremendous inspiration. Your comment is even a bit uncanny, because in grad school, I once distinctly said that I wanted the guys in my pictures to look as though any one them could be out of a Carver story. I just love his work and the places it takes me.
A lot of writers in his vein have influenced me – Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, and especially William Kittredge, who was a good friend of Carver and whose quote I used to preface my book.
And cinema has been massively important to me – Antonioni, Bergman, Cassavetes, the Coen Bros, Ford, Malick, Malle, Olmi, Ozu, Truffaut, and on and on. I can’t cite specific ways they’ve influenced my work in the way that Hugo has, but somehow I know I’d be nothing without what they’ve given me.
Like a lot of people, I really love to love good art, whether it’s cinema, literature, photography, music, or painting. I take all that in and hold it in my head and my heart. I carry it with me everywhere I go. I’m not always conscious of how the influences come out in my work, but it’s certainly there.
Peter: A big question that we approached tentatively at the beginning: what are your thoughts on the mythology of the West? Your book seems to critically embrace the idea. My sense from your work in general is that an endgame has taken place, and the myth of endless space, unspoiled land and opportunity for anyone with grit and determination has been trumped by a harsh set of realities. Your people and the land they inhabit, not to be harsh seem exemplars of this failure. A failure not of will or courage or ability -- they’ve just been knocked over by elemental forces beyond their control. And they’ve been saddled by vestiges of a myth that does not mirror a workable reality…
Yet there’s still a great power in their lives and that comes through in your work, and an overwhelmingly resonant power to the land.
This is an enormous topic that I’ll barely be able to summarize here. But basically, the West’s mythology and what it entails – rugged individualism, masculine exploits, American exceptionalism and the American dream, etc – propelled this work immeasurably. It’s at the core of these photos, but my intention wasn’t to debunk the frontier myth, since its falseness has been long exposed. I guess with these photos I’m just reflecting on what’s already known: the West was never what it was purported to be.
Still, the myth hasn’t been erased by any means. It’s alive and well in countless ways. One example I’ve been thinking about lately is reality television shows like Gold Rush, Prospectors, Mountain Men, and so on, which espouse self-reliance and American greatness. It’s recycled ideology. My sense is that the prevalence of this kind of pop culture comes from anxiety and nostalgia, so it’s not exactly the same optimism that built the West, but it’s evidence of how the doctrine endures.
When I started getting into photography, I was really taken by the earliest photos of the West – Jackson, Watkins, O’Sullivan, and so on. I love that work, but in a sense, it was propaganda, as it implied an exorbitant promise, beckoning people from all over to settle a harsh place where prosperity was far from easy. Meanwhile, atrocities were being committed against Indians who were already there, and Chicanos of the region were treated deplorably.
Sold on the hype, Anglo populations continued settlement. People forged paths, cut through rock, felled forests, tilled soil, labored away, and tried to do great things with resolute belief in the promise of the West. A few of them got rich. The vast majority did not.
I say none of this to disparage the ordinary people in history who took the westward path. I don’t think they were credulous. I think they were hopeful and brave, and that’s a rare, beautiful thing. And as you implied, I have a great respect for the landscape and its power. Even with scars, even with the pain and shame of history, the mountains still stand, as do the people, who rightly refuse to give up the aspirations and dignity and sacrifice of their past. Despite the dour mood of much of my work, I still try to honor that.
You deal with animals often – though not live ones. And animals feed into western myth as well. You show horses, trophy sheep, wolves, buffalo, eagles, a stuffed squirrel, a tiny salmon, a turkey in an oven, a bear on a calendar. None are alive and all seem to point toward a happier more natural past. The underdone turkey is the closest thing to a living being, apart from the men and the red headed waitress in the book. What do the animals mean to you? The bucking white stallion is almost like the American flag in Frank’s The Americans. It rears up again and again.
Again, this is tough to answer, because I have a bunch of little micro narratives in my mind in which the different depictions of animals mean different things and relate to subjects in their own ways. None of that really matters though, and I don’t expect anyone to get it. But yes, the animals definitely play into the wilderness myth, and they describe how the West’s cultural identity has been shaped by the frontier. More importantly, like the landscapes and the broken cars and so on, the animals are metaphors for human experience and bygone glory. They symbolize a lot of disparate things – love of the land, loss, disillusionment, subjugation, pride. That recurring horse is American pride.
And how about the woman: her place in the book and in the lives of these men? Seeing her at the end moved me deeply – I felt for those lonely, lonely guys – and for her. Why is she the only woman (apart from a Hollywood actress shown on TV) and why do we not see her face?
You referenced the red haired girl as a coda earlier, and I think that’s a good way to put it, because for a long time I didn’t consider the photo part of the project. In the book, she comes after the colophon, and I fought curators to keep her out of my exhibition at Aperture but didn’t win.
Anyway, at the end of “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” after a lot of bitterness and sorrow, the final stanza offers hope: “The car that brought you here still runs. / The money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver / and the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.” I basically stole Hugo’s ending. In my photo, her face isn’t seen because she’s not a protagonist like the men. She’s on the periphery. The photo isn’t really about who she is but what she means to the guys – a fleeting embodiment of hope and joy and solace.
At a lecture in Chicago, a man in the audience suggested that she symbolized rebirth, which despite the hardship seen in the series, the world keeps turning and there are second chances. I liked that interpretation as well. The West is all about second chances.
She’s the only woman because the book is about men – their sorrows, struggles, hopes, and dreams. It’s about loneliness, patriarchy, and masculinity. It’s about what men have done to the West and how they’ve reckoned with it.
She is a wonderful shock. I wonder if you could have made this book with women instead of men?
Maybe someday – I would have to get better at photographing women first. I actually took a lot of photos of women during my travels on this project. Most of them were pretty bad.
A few more questions and we’re done:
You’ve sectioned the book in chapters or stanzas or even musical movements as we’ve mentioned. Tell me your intentions with this. The color of the paper used for these separations is an olive/brownish/grey that adds wonderfully to the mood.
The breaks came about as I was editing. Since the work was influenced so much by poetry, I thought it would be cool to divide the sequence into short, lyrical stanzas to see what would happen. I stuck blank, black pages in places I thought were appropriate. It ended up really helping in terms of pace, rhythm, and how photo content is digested. Each stanza functions a bit differently, but they all contain at least two portraits, an expansive landscape, an interior shot, an animal of some kind, and a busted car.
The blank pages are like cinematic cuts, or maybe fades to black before being brought back into the story. Again, it’s a rhythmic thing. In the dummy, the those pages were pure black, but Kevin at Silas Finch really felt that there should be a more subtle, earthy hue in the paper so that it would better correlate with the tone and content of the book – which I think was a smart decision.
I wonder also about rhythm in the book and in your sequencing. It’s obviously very important in any photo book, but in your case it seems almost musical – Philip Glass, Robert Adams the composer, Steve Reich…
I take that as a big compliment, and I’m fond of musical analogies when it comes to photography. I know we’ve talked a lot about the content of the pictures – the actual stuff in the pictures, the lives of people, the mythology of the West, the history, and so on – but I think of that as lyrics, whereas the aesthetic structure and the sequence is the rhythm and melody, which is more retinal and visceral. The two cross paths, no doubt; I think of Ben Shahn's essay, “The Shape of Content,” which essentially says that form is content and content is form. I suppose how you say something is as important as what you say; and sometimes how you say something is actually what you’re saying! Anyhow, I find that people are less willing to engage with the lyrics if the melody doesn’t move them initially, so I put a lot of effort into the form (or the melody or aesthetics – whatever we want to call it). Of course, the composers you mentioned don’t use lyrics, but a lot is going on conceptually in their work. One of my favorite composers is Arvo Pärt. My musically inclined friends who have studied theory can articulate how and why his music is genius, but I can’t break it down in that way. The sound of the music is just transcendently moving to me and I can project all the emotion inside me into it. It’s like a Rothko painting. This is why I feel like a lot of photographers who make topical projects and strive to make polemic points about the world are missing the boat. Arguably, some of history’s greatest art – classical music, expressionist painting, etc – isn’t really about anything; if you had to put it in those terms, the work would be about sound and paint. This is becoming a tangent, but what I’m basically saying is that photographic harmony means a great deal to me, and the visceral responses I solicit are just as much the content, as the stuff that’s actually in the pictures and what it says about the world.
And finally, I find it interesting that you did not include notes for pictures - no names for the people and no place names for location. I assume it was your intent to generalize, to fictionalize the sequence?
Yes, that was the intent. I wanted to step away from the way documentary books function, and I didn’t want any caption information or locations to interfere with the way viewers read the photos. The photos construct a world of their own, which I didn’t want disassembled by too much information about the real world. The landscapes and interiors in this book are meant to relate to the people and their connections to the land and what it means to their lives. As a storyteller, if I need a landscape from New Mexico to describe a man living in Montana, it’s easier to achieve the metaphor if there’s not text that contradicts the illusion. This echoes what I said earlier about fiction in photography and that could be a long conversation. In any case, I think the general description in the back of the book sufficed.
Thanks Bryan – I’ve enjoyed this.
Thank you, this was great.
Peter Brown, has a BA and MFA from Stanford University and has taught in the Art Departments of Stanford and Rice. His photographic awards include the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award and the Imogen Cunningham Award—as well as fellowships from the Carnegie Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Houston Arts Alliance. His photographs are in collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Menil Collection, The Museum of Modern Art New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Amon Carter Museum among others.
Brown is the author of the books West of Last Chance, Seasons of Light and On the Plains. His photos have been shown internationally and have been published in DoubleTake, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, Aperture, LIFE, Harpers and other magazines. In 2008 he received the inaugural Glasscock School Teaching Award in recognition of his years of service at Rice. He is a founding member of The Houston Center for Photography where he is on the Advisory Council and is an Art Board member of Houston FotoFest and an Advisory Board member of the Glasscock School at Rice where he has taught photography for many years. He is currently working collaboratively on a book on Texas with the writer Joe Holley titled “Into The Heart.”
Bryan Schutmaat, holds a BA in History from the University of Houston and an MFA in photography from the University of Hartford Art School. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and is represented by Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York City.